91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Commentary: Our founding father

Tomorrow is the 201st birthday of a politician you may never have heard of, who nevertheless may have had a bigger influence on shaping our state than anyone.

His friends called him Tom. Tom Mason.  And here are some of the most remarkable things about him. He was put in charge of the Michigan territory at age 19, before he could even vote.

He was our first elected governor at age 24, and made his mark by standing up to his political hero and patron, President Andrew Jackson, by, among other things, proclaiming Michigan a state before Congress officially recognized it as one.

Young Governor Mason then led his small band of Michigan men into the so-called Toledo War with Ohio, a mainly bloodless conflict which won Michigan officially recognized statehood and the entire Upper Peninsula. Not a bad record for someone younger than many of my college students. I’m talking about Mason today not just because it’s his birthday, but because a long-overdue and fascinating new biography has just been published.

Two years ago, Ann Arbor historian and journalist Don Faber came out with an excellent book called “The Toledo War.” Now, he is back with “The Boy Governor: Stevens T. Mason and the Birth of Michigan Politics,” both published by the University of Michigan Press.

Like the first book it is decently illustrated and of manageable length -- less than 200 pages. Those of us who grew up here learned in elementary school that Mason was the state’s first governor, the youngest governor in history … and not much more.

Actually, I didn’t think there was all that much more. I was wrong. His story would make a pretty good movie. Tom Mason came here as a teenager when his father was made secretary to the territorial governor, Lewis Cass.

But the elder Mason didn’t much like the work, needed money and took off for Mexico. Cass got appointed to the president’s cabinet, and Andy Jackson promptly appointed Mason secretary or acting governor of the territory.

Detroit was a rough frontier town then, and the natives were shocked at being saddled with a teenage governor. But Tom Mason won them over. When eventually a new territorial governor was named, he was run out of town. Folks wanted their Tom. And he went on to win the state glory and statehood. But then, disaster. Mason was impatient to modernize the state, and he especially pushed for a crash program of internal improvements. He mostly got the crash. There were rash investments, and his opponents called him a tax and spend Democrat.

In the end, the bottom fell out. Mason fled to New York City, his wife’s hometown, attemped to practice law, but soon fell ill and died. He was only 31 years old. He was mostly forgotten till his body was moved back to Detroit years later. He has had both a restless life and death; they moved his bones again, two years ago. But he ought to be remembered; he was a visionary and way ahead of his time.

If you have any interest in knowing how we got where we are, and like a good story, in this year of politics, this is a book for you.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.